Though there was never an exact formula to Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, his 2014 entry Inherent Vice was definitely a break from his traditions. It was plot driven, even if that plot was deliberately obscure throughout, based faithfully on a novel, and not about fathers and sons as most of his previous work had been. If anyone was thinking that Phantom Thread – which reunites Anderson with his There Will Be Blood star Daniel Day-Lewis – would be a return to relative ‘normalcy’, it proves to be anything but. A wonderfully strange and unpredictable entry into the Anderson canon, it’s more than up to the auteur’s absurdly high standards.
In, reportedly, his final role, Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a superstar fashion designer in ‘50s London. Immensely respected as a professional, Reynolds is also a tyrant in his private life, to the point where he’s essentially a little boy, waited on by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). To accommodate her brother’s demands, Cyril also fills the roles of both his mother and his secretary. In being given that power, she actually ends up as the main engine of the film’s story, alongside the other most important woman in Reynolds’s life, his European lover Alma (Vicky Krieps).
The constantly shifting balance of power between this lead three in the Woodcocks’ grand London townhouse is the backbone of the minimalist plot, and Anderson draws the varying relationships with stunning intelligence and care. Reynolds and Alma’s first date is swirlingly romantic, but Reynolds’s coup de grace at the end of it, designing Alma her very own dress, is twisted into darkness by Cyril’s arrival. Intimacy quickly turns to cold analysis before just as swiftly transforming into an attack on Alma. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the way Phantom Thread constantly contorts itself into new, unexpected shapes, tripping the audience with every fresh development.
One thing that Phantom Thread is decidedly not is a celebration or veneration of its subject. Instead Anderson, himself no stranger to critical worship, delivers a savagely unsubtle stab at the intellectual paucity of the idea that Great Creative Men must be insufferable loners. It’s a brilliant message, delivered with immense wit, and as it becomes more and more clear that this is what the film is about, the pace picks up considerably. Having very little plot to speak of does not mean that Phantom Thread is a slow film, and in fact it moves with thrilling urgency and propulsiveness.
It’s also blackly funny, all its laughs laced with arsenic as Reynolds, Cyril, and Alma snipe at each other. Manville in particular is majestically venomous, and both her and Krieps actually have showier roles than Day-Lewis. If this is to be the legendary actor’s last film, it’s fitting that the performance feels like such a throwback to his earlier, late 80s and early 90s, roles. After all the American bombast of Butcher Bill, Daniel Plainview, and Abraham Lincoln, to have Day-Lewis back as a more muted, but no less magnetic, Brit is worth celebrating.
Of course, he inhabits the character fully, and it’s still astonishing to see him disappear so completely into a role. Little moments of childish pettiness and glee break through the carefully studied surface, and his last scene makes a perfect career capper. If There Will Be Blood sometimes became more Day-Lewis’s film than Anderson’s, Phantom Thread is far more of an ensemble piece, with not even a hint of a weak link. Krieps more than holds her own next to him as well in a jaw-dropping breakout role, strong yet brittle and endlessly layered as she undergoes countless humiliations before turning the tables.
Of course, it’s a technical triumph from top to bottom. If Anderson is indeed the modern day Stanley Kubrick, then this is his Barry Lyndon, a coldly beautiful tribute to Britain. Anderson acts as his own DOP to create some sublime visuals. Most American directors, even otherwise great ones, treat the UK with too much quaintness for their worlds to feel real, but Anderson shoots it in the way that Mike Leigh or even David Lean would. Gorgeous countryside eventually gives way to London interiors, and the Woodcock house is a masterclass in design, simultaneously believably lived in and creeping with an air of intangible menace.
Phantom Thread doesn’t skimp on the high fashion, and the garment creation is intoxicating, gliding weightlessly through all the meticulous details that go into creating wearable confidence and glory. A sequence at a New Years Eve party is so laden with the best of high society 50s design that it’s hard to know where to look, and is sure to reveal more and more details on every rewatch. To complete the sensory experience is Jonny Greenwood’s perfect score – more classical than his usual compositions and a simply delightful listen.
It’s the second best score of 2017, beaten only by Greenwood’s other soundtrack, for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. With any justice, the Radiohead man is a shoo-in for trophies at every ceremony going, even if the rest of the film is just a little too offbeat to make much headway in awards season. Paul Thomas Anderson yet again suggests that he may well be incapable of making anything less than a great film (of his eight movies, this is the sixth five-star one), and, even a mere week after seeing this, I already can’t wait to see whatever world he tackles next.